PTI’s better half

Recent incidents of sexual harassment at rallies received much media attention. J. K. Wali speaks to PTI's female activists

PTI’s better half
Naghmana Shahid, now a retired schoolteacher, served as Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf’s (PTI) vice president in Isakhel from 1999 till 2002, when her husband was posted there. She moved with her family to Sargodha for the next two years, where she served in the party’s literary wing, and then in 2004 moved to Lahore where she has lived ever since. She has been part of the PTI family for 17 years.

On April 24, the party organised a rally in F9 Park Islamabad to celebrate its 20th anniversary, while increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the ‘Panama leaks’ issue. The rally was marred by a high-profile sexual harassment incident, when men wearing PTI caps and holding party flags stormed into the women’s section.

"There is an increase in reporting of crimes against women. In the past they would have been urged to remain quiet"

“My health didn’t allow me to travel to Islamabad. I was looking to attend the 20th anniversary celebrations, having spent almost the entirety of those 20 years with PTI,” says Naghmana Shahid. “But fellow party workers informed me of the tragic incident and I was shocked by what I heard. One of my friends inboxed my videos on Facebook and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

A stampede took place while Khan addressed the F9 Park rally, as men broke into the women’s section after breaching the security cordon. The videos show women being fondled, groped and harassed.

Scenes of men attacking women at rallies have shocked the country
Scenes of men attacking women at rallies have shocked the country

“We had to cut the barbed wires to escape,” says Hira Rafi an Islamabad-based university student. “The women were first separated from their friends and families and then harassed. It wasn’t just mild attempts at targeting women - the men were violent. And they continued harassing women despite Khan’s call to refrain from the misconduct.”

Hira Rafi regularly attended the party’s four-month long sit-in in 2014, and said all gatherings were peaceful for the most part. “I don’t recall any high-profile incident in those four months, with regards to harassment. I mean, yes, men misbehaved - there was ogling, teasing and other forms of harassment, but that’s just how typical Pakistani men behave whenever they see women,” she says adding that the party shouldn’t be blamed for exhibitions of misogyny.

Many of PTI's female supporters remain undaunted by incidents of sexual harrassment at mass political events
Many of PTI's female supporters remain undaunted by incidents of sexual harrassment at mass political events

“If anything, PTI should be credited with empowering women to a point where they come out and participate wholeheartedly in rallies. No other party has as high a percentage of women participating in its gatherings as PTI.”

The PTI chief issued a formal apology and formed a committee to probe the incident. “In Islamabad our crowds were too big and the space too small. In future we will ensure foolproof arrangements so nothing untoward happens,” Imran Khan tweeted.

On May 1, the party organised a rally in Lahore to further pressurise the government over the Panama Papers investigations. The rally was again tarnished by a sexual harassment incident.

Imran Khan came also under criticism from some quarters for referring to the party's female supporters as 'our women'
Imran Khan came also under criticism from some quarters for referring to the party's female supporters as 'our women'

PTI leader Andleeb Abbas criticised the actress' sari and accused her of provoking the crowd

“I personally thought the rally was well organised,” says Naghmana Shahid. “It was only after it was over and I got home that we heard that another incident has been reported.”

Alvina Mushtaq, a Lahore-based banker and resident of DHA, attended the party’s regular gatherings at Lalak Jan Chowk, during the 4-month sit-in. She echoes the PTI leaders, saying that this sudden surge of harassment cases has external involvement.

“I’m sure it’s those PML-N rogues that are at it again,” she says. “I refuse to believe that anyone from PTI, wearing party shirts, caps and waving the PTI flag would do this to defame his own party.”

Some of PTI leader Andleeb Abbas' comments on incidents of sexual harrassment have been interpreted as victim-blaming
Some of PTI leader Andleeb Abbas' comments on incidents of sexual harrassment have been interpreted as victim-blaming

Alvina Mushtaq says she has attended every rally in Lahore and has never experienced something as extreme as what has been recently witnessed. “Everyone saw the numbers in the rallies that the party has organised at Minar-e-Pakistan. Why weren’t there any incidents like these over there? Why has harassment at PTI rallies sprung up all of a sudden, when the PML-N and their prime minister is under pressure to resign?” she asked.

“Over the rigging they called PTI paranoid. Well the PTI isn’t responsible over the Panama Leaks. The government’s corruption is a well known fact.”

Annam Lodhi, a reporter, covered the May 01, 2016, rally for her publication. “The incident in the Lahore rally was strange, considering that I have never seen any PTI rally as well-managed as it was,” she says. “There were a lot of police officials and the entrances for men and women were completely separate. Men were supposed to enter from Shahrah-e-Fatima Jinnah, while the women came from the other end of the Mall Road.”

Model Annie Khan found herself treated badly by men at PTI's recent Peshawar rally
Model Annie Khan found herself treated badly by men at PTI's recent Peshawar rally

"Imran Khan must realise that enlightened women no longer accept being addressed in reference to others. We are no one's property"

Annam Lodhi also believes that such incidents are completely out of line with what the PTI gatherings are normally like. “PTI workers used to gather even as late as 2-3 am near S block, Defence mor or even Mall Road, but nothing as intense as this ever happened,” she says.

However, she believes that these incidents could also be a result of the frequency of reporting. “A colleague told me that such incidents happen at all rallies, be it PTI, PPP, PML-N but no woman ever reports them. These latest incidents were actually recorded,” she says. “I also believe that we are witnessing an increase of crimes against women being reported now, when in the past most would’ve been urged to remain quiet.”

On May 10, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police officials had to resort to aerial firing at PTI’s Peshawar rally after the crowd got out of control. Another high-profile incident of harassment was reported when model and actress Annie Khan reported that a group of men misbehaved with her.

The enthusiastic participation of urban women has defined a lot of the PTI's gains in politics
The enthusiastic participation of urban women has defined a lot of the PTI's gains in politics

“I only came here to propose to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chairman and was forced to take refuge in this car after being harassed by the party workers,” Annie Khan told the media. “I had no idea there was no designated area for women in the congregation.”

On a television show PTI leader Andleeb Abbas criticised the actress’ sari and accused her of provoking the crowd. “Every place has a dress code. The manner in which she entered the rally was in itself and invitation,” she said.

Alvina Mushtaq says Andleeb Abbas’ comments were completely contradictory to what many female PTI workers believe and want to hear. “We can’t still be doing victim-blaming in the year 2016. Obviously when a woman does it, it’s even worse,” she says. “Women are the backbone of the party. Women’s empowerment has been the party’s biggest selling point. It is these middleclass women, the untapped vote bank for years, who have made PTI the second largest party in Pakistan.”

Naghmana Shahid said even in the Mianwali Constituency NA-71, Isakhel, it was women who were instrumental in helping Imran Khan win his first seat in 2002. “It was women in Mianwali and Isakhel that stood up for Imran Khan. This is 15 years back. And there is no doubt that it is women, who are now more politically active than ever who have ensured the party’s progress in the past decade and a half.”

The former Isakhel vice president says the party needs to continue progressing on the women’s empowerment front. “I remember back in 1992 when Imran Khan came to Minchinabad (in Bahawalpur district) to collect funds for Shaukat Khanum Hospital after winning the World Cup. Women who had never left their houses, came out to support him. Khan was on a tour to South Punjab back then, and women all over the region supported him. This was four years before PTI was born. And now it’s the same women who have taken the party this far.”

Naghmana Shahid recalls attending her first political rally in the early 70s, at the age of seven, held by PPP at Rawalpindi Cantonment, and says PTI has captured the women the way the Peoples’ Party had in the past. “I supported PPP till the mid 90s, because of the party’s stance on women empowerment under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Nusrat Bhutto and then under Benazir Bhutto. There are many fellow women who moved on from PPP to PTI, after the former became irrelevant. We would never vote for the PML-N. That’s a given.”

“I also think that Imran Khan should evolve with modern times as well. Even in his apologies and instructions to male party workers, he refers to women as ‘our women’. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called him out for it as well. Most progressive women have faith in Imran Khan, but he must now realise that enlightened women are no longer fine being addressed in reference to someone else. We are no one’s property. We are PTI’s better half.”

Fatima Ali, a political science graduate, believes PTI has its work cut out in dealing with the challenges from PML-N and PPP with regards to the women vote bank. “When you look at initiatives that the PML-N government in Punjab is launching, like ‘Women on Wheels’ and even the Women’s Protection Act, a lot of young women are appreciating the efforts. And this appreciation can eventually transform into votes,” she says. “Meanwhile Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is under PTI’s political jurisdiction, still remains the only province without an Act to protect women against violence”

“Bilawal has come out as a progressive voice for minorities and women. His tweet saying that women should not be called ‘our’ because they aren’t anyone’s property, touched all the right nerves as well,” says Fatima Ali, who voted for PTI in both the General Elections 2013 and Local Government Elections 2015.

“The party’s reaction to the sexual harassment incidents has been counterproductive. They need to make sure that they culprits are arrested as soon as possible, to instill some  confidence in the currently alienated female supporters. Not many women would want to attend any future PTI rallies after watching the videos of what happened in Islamabad, Lahore and Peshwar. But the same video footage should be used to find the culprits. It’s necessary for PTI’s survival I think.”

Hira Rafi claims that the harassment episodes haven’t affected the morale of the PTI supporters. “It’s going to take a lot more than misbehaving men to prevent us from attending future rallies. I’m not going to get into the conspiracy theories, but even if the culprits were PTI workers, we should own them and punish them. But the party needs to disown any exhibits of misogyny whether they are from men or women.”

PTI’s next rally will be held in Faisalabad today. The rally was postponed till May 20 following the harassment incidents in Lahore and Islamabad and party insiders confirm that they’re making foolproof arrangements to ensure the safety and security for women.

“We will be there in numbers to support our party,” says Sarah Syed, a Faisalabad-based businesswoman. “I’m sure the party will have proper arrangements for us and so it’s up to us to return the support back to the party. If we don’t go out, it will be a victory for our political rivals. We can’t let that happen. I’m texting and calling every woman I know to join the rally. Many of my friends are coming from Lahore!”

Annam Lodhi believes that while the party and local authorities need to ensure security for the women, the media has to play its proper role as well. “It’s an encouraging sign that more women are speaking up. It could also be because there is generally more awareness. But I also believe that the media should remain ethical,” she says.

“Draw a line wherever possible. We need less coverage of the victim and more focus on the culprit. It’s easier to dig into the life of the victim, but at the same time it’s blatantly counterproductive.”